Just days after Yahoo tapped former Google executive Marissa Mayer for its CEO post, the 37-year-old has taken on another high-profile role. After announcing that she was pregnant -- and wouldn't let that interfere with her work duties -- Mayer took center stage in the nation's often-heated debate over women's roles at home and in the workplace.
"I like to stay in the rhythm of things," she told Fortune magazine. "My maternity leave will be a few weeks long, and I'll work throughout it."
Reaction was swift, and in some cases, scorching, as her matter-of-fact declaration took on a life of its own in social media. Countless posts on Facebook, Twitter and throughout the blogosphere criticized her decision to keep working. Others warned that Mayer, who is expecting her first child, had underestimated the challenges of being a mom.
Much of the scrutiny comes because of the unique circumstances in play, says Laura Graves, associate professor of management at the Graduate School of Management at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. Not just a female CEO, but one who is expecting.
"Despite all the changes in society, we haven't given up traditional gender roles," Graves says, and women are still assumed to be the main caretakers of children.
And so Mayer's swift move to take over and revive the struggling Yahoo brand was quickly eclipsed this week by talk of her parenting choices, the pros and cons of taking a long maternity leave, female ascension in the workplace and the challenges of work-life balance.
Some of the myriad armchair critics have also suggested that her vast wealth and high-level position give her an edge -- indeed, the luxury -- that other working mothers don't have.
"Mayer will have all the things parents need to combine family and career -- good child care, the ability to set her own schedule, a spouse with the same flexibility," says work and family blogger Lisa Belkin. "She will also, I am betting, not power through quite as single-mindedly on her maternity leave as she thinks she will."
On People magazine's website, for instance, a couple of reader exchanges delivered not far apart illustrated both ends of the spectrum.
"As an ambitious young woman, I find her to be a role model in so many regards," said one post written under the moniker "really?"
Someone named "Emily" said, "The thing every child wants most (is) their mother's attention, and unfortunately her son will have very little of it."
But it has gotten better
Though few would argue that raising a child while working has ever been easy, a series of advances since the 1960s have at least changed the circumstances faced by working mothers in the United States.
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission laws came into force prohibiting discrimination against new and expecting mothers, workplaces began offering greater flexibility. Today, telecommuting and on-site day care are more common.
Even so, many practical questions remain. How do the mental and physical drains of pregnancy affect a woman's performance at work? How much time does a mother need to recover physically after giving birth? What are the logistics of planning out child care?
Polling still reflects a deep cultural skepticism of mothers who decide to return to work.
In a 2010 report, the Pew Research Center found that 21% of adults in the USA said the trend toward mothers of young children working outside the home has been a good thing for society. Thirty-seven percent deemed it a bad thing, and 38% said it hasn't made much difference.
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